The Ford S-MAX is a people carrier that proves practicality doesn’t have to come at the expense of driver enjoyment. There's much to like about the S-MAX: in addition to being comfortable on a long motorway drive and engaging on a winding B-road, it's also well-equipped, spacious and good-looking.
It's more expensive than the excellent Citroen Grand C4 Picasso and the Vauxhall Zafira Tourer, however, while even the BMW 2 Series Gran Tourer manages to undercut it slightly on price. The only other compromise is economy; the S-MAX is a relatively expensive car to run, with the most efficient engine only capable of around 57mpg.
Ford offers the S-MAX with two petrol engines and four diesels. The entry-level engine is a 158bhp turbocharged 1.5-litre petrol, which returns 43.5mpg, costs £145 a year in road tax and takes the S-MAX from 0-62mph in 9.9 seconds. The only other petrol offering is a 237bhp 2.0-litre engine, which gives the S-MAX a fair turn of speed (0-62mph takes 8.4 seconds) but it costs £230 a year in road tax and returns just 35.8mpg.
All of the diesels are 2.0-litre engines, producing 118, 148, 178 or 207bhp. All return 56.5mpg and cost £110 a year in road tax aside from the 207bhp model, which manages 51.4mpg and incurs a £145 annual road tax bill. Depending on which diesel you choose, 0-62mph takes from 13.4 to 8.8 seconds but we think the 148bhp engine is the pick of the range. It's only about £750 more expensive than the entry-level diesel, but the extra power means it's more relaxing to drive (0-62mph takes 10.8 seconds), while the 118bhp diesel is also only available with entry-level Zetec trim.
On the road the S-MAX impresses. It's remarkably comfortable over bumps, while motorway cruising is a quiet and relaxing affair. The old S-MAX was a little sharper – it had sportier suspension and more accurate steering – but the trade off is that this new model is significantly better at protecting occupants from jolts and bumps caused by potholes, drain covers and broken tarmac. An automatic gearbox is optional with the 148 and 178bhp diesel engines, and standard with the 207bhp diesel and the 237bhp petrol engine. Drivers after extra grip may wish to consider the four-wheel-drive option. This is offered with the 148 and 178bhp diesels, but the extra expense and reduced economy this system incurs mean it's by no means essential.
Inside, the S-MAX feels robust and is built using plenty of soft-touch plastics. The front and middle row of seats offer good head and legroom, and all of the rear seats can be folded individually depending on the combination of people and luggage you need to carry. Drivers who regularly carry six passengers may want to consider cars from the class above, like the Ford Galaxy and SEAT Alhambra, as the S-MAX's third row of seats is useful but cramped.
With all seven seats in place, the S-MAX's boot is small at 285 litres. While many people carriers suffer a similarly compromised carrying capacity in seven-seat mode, note that this figure assumes you’ll load the boot all the way to the roof. There's better news with the S-MAX in five-seat configuration, though, as the boot expands to 700 litres, and this figure more realistically assumes you’ll be loading the car to the rear parcel shelf.
The S-MAX is available in three main trims: Zetec, Titanium and Titanium Sport. Zetec cars come with alloy wheels, all-round parking sensors, keyless entry and go, electric windows, a leather steering wheel and an eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system, complete with DAB radio and Bluetooth connectivity. Moving up to Titanium trim costs around £1,750 and adds LED lights, tinted rear windows, sat nav, a 10-inch digital dashboard display, cruise control and a lane departure warning system. Titanium Sport costs a further £1,500 and brings with it larger alloy wheels, stiffer suspension, a sporty bodykit, heated seats and some upgraded interior and exterior trim details.
If you want a super-luxurious people carrier, there's also the S-MAX Vignale. This model comes with heated, ventilated and electronically adjustable leather seats, an upgraded sound system and infotainment setup, some unique interior and exterior trim flourishes and a rear parking camera. Ford considers this to be a standalone model and offers Vignale buyers a bespoke concierge-style customer experience. The Vignale S-MAX costs around £2,600 more than the top-spec Titanium Sport model, making it an expensive proposition.
As an ownership prospect, the S-MAX is too new to have featured in our 2016 Driver Power customer satisfaction survey, though Ford's 27th place finish out of 32 manufacturers is somewhat uninspiring. There are no such qualms when it comes to safety: a five-star rating from Euro NCAP should provide all the reassurance families could ask for.